What makes us stronger (2023)

For centuries, physicists have used the word stress to describe the force exerted on materials. It wasn't until the 1930s that Hans Selye, a Hungarian-born endocrinologist, began using it on living things. Selye injected rats with cow hormones, exposed them to extreme temperatures, and partially severed their spinal cords to show that all these types of abuse affected rodents in the same way: they lost muscle tone, developed stomach ulcers, and suffered failure to function. immune system. He used the word for both the abuse of the rats and the health effects. Later it was also used for mental illness.

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Today, the Oxford English Dictionary defines stress as "a state of mental or emotional distress or tension resulting from adverse or challenging circumstances." The causes are very different: a person can be stressed by exams, but happily swim with the great white sharks. Another may need to take sedatives before flying, but likes to talk to a crowd. This makes stress difficult to measure. Proxies, such as the Negative Experience Index compiled by the Gallup poll, suggest that the world is becoming more pessimistic, which could indicate rising levels of stress. Other surveys confirm what may be obvious: stress is universal.

The American Psychological Association (APA) notes that, at least in the United States, the most common causes are related to money, work, and family. Women report being more stressed than men and are twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders. Studies in rats indicate that sex hormones such as estrogen and progesterone may play a role; as well as the double family and work burden. Men are also more likely to hide their distress. Black and Hispanic Americans, as well as poor people and parents, also report higher levels of stress. In 2015, half of Americans entering college said they were stressed out most or all of the time.

Young people have long reported more stress than older people, says Mary McNaughton-Cassill of the University of Texas at San Antonio. But she believes that today's youth are more overwhelmed than ever. Globalization means rapid changes in the workplace, and companies increasingly expect employees to be connected at all times. The media inundates us with bad news while creating unattainable hope, she adds: "You have to look like a movie star, stay informed on politics, take care of the kids and hold down a job." connections with friends, have been linked to increased stress when delivering messages about friends' difficulties, such as divorce and accidents.

Many studies have shown that stress in humans has effects similar to those in Selye rats. It has been linked to high blood pressure, headaches, upset stomach, and insomnia. According to the APA, chronic stress can "wreak havoc" on the immune system and increase unhealthy behaviors like drinking and smoking, which increases the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. A recent study by Rockefeller University neuroscientist Bruce McEwen showed that rats exposed to stress for just three weeks changed their brain architecture. Forcing his rats to swim, among other uncomfortable tasks, he shrank the dendrites of their tonsils, the parts of the brain that control emotional responses, decision-making and memory. Although reversible, these changes in humans increase the risk of anxiety disorders and depression.

set point

Late in his career, Selye came to distinguish between "eustress," or the good stress caused by positive experiences like being in love, and heartbreak, the bad kind. Other scientists expanded on the original metaphor from physics: Just as many materials can withstand stress to a certain degree, it was thought that humans could handle stress if it didn't become too strong. In fact, the idea that moderate stress could be a good thing. In 1979, Peter Nixon, a specialist at London's Charing Cross Hospital, described a "human functioning curve": moderate levels of stress, such as a deadline or a career, were now understood not only as harmless but also as beneficial. But above a certain threshold, people would break like metal bars.

Now a new research group is challenging that notion. Some scientists suggest that it's not just the level or even the type of stress that matters, but how you think about it. The same stress, perceived differently, can trigger different physical reactions, with different consequences for performance and health.

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Realizing that stress can be beneficial seems to help in two main ways. People who view stress more positively are more likely to behave constructively: A study by Alia Crum of Stanford University's Mind and Body Lab and others found that students who believed stress increased performance had more likely to seek detailed feedback after an awkward public speaking exercise. And viewing stressors as challenges rather than threats invites physiological responses that improve thinking and cause less physical wear and tear.

People can react to stress in different ways. The best known is the "fight or flight" response, which evolved in response to sudden danger. increases heart rate; the veins are narrowed to limit bleeding that might follow a fight and send more blood to the muscles; and the brain focuses on the big picture, with the details blurred.

In less extreme situations, the body and the brain should react slightly differently. When people perceive they are being challenged rather than threatened, the heart still beats faster and the adrenaline still rises, but the brain is sharper and the body releases a different combination of stress hormones that aid in recovery and learning. . The blood vessels remain more open and the immune system also reacts differently. Sometimes, however, there are incorrect reactions and during exams, speeches or business plans, one reacts as if it were a sudden threat, with negative consequences for performance and long-term health.

Ms. Crum believes that attitudes and beliefs shape the body's response to stress. In 2013, she subjected student volunteers to fake job interviews. Before that, she was shown one of two videos. The first praised the way stress can improve performance and form social connections; the second emphasized its dangers. In the fake interviews, the participants were harshly criticized. When Ms Crum took saliva samples at the end of the study, she found that those who watched the optimistic video had released more DHEA, a hormone linked to brain growth.

In an earlier study, Ms Crum and Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, visited investment bank UBS at the height of the 2008 financial crisis. They divided around 400 bankers into three groups. The first watched a video that reinforced the idea that stress is toxic, the second watched one that stressed that stress can increase performance, and the third watched no videos at all. A week later, the second group reported greater concentration, greater participation, and fewer health problems than before; the other two groups reported no changes.

Other scientists have shown that recognizing the benefits of stress can lead to measurable increases in performance. In one experiment, Jeremy Jamieson, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, recruited college students preparing for the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). He collected saliva from each of the students to measure their baseline stress response and divided them into two groups. One group was told that stress during practice tests is natural and can increase performance; the other received no such pep talk. Students who received the mindset intervention performed better on a GRE practice test than those who did not. When Mr Jamieson collected his saliva after the exam, he suggested that his intervention had not calmed his nerves: they were at least as stressed as the control group. A few months later, students reported their scores on the actual GRE test: Those who were taught to view stress as a positive did even better.

"Google images of stress and you'll see a guy whose head is on fire. We've internalized this idea," says Mr. Achor. Instead, he compares stress to going to the gym. You only get stronger if you try harder. beyond what seems easy, but after that you need to recover The analogy suggests that while stress at work can improve performance, recovery must follow, whether it's not checking email on the weekend, taking more vacations or go for a walk in the middle of the day.

The well-tempered spirit

Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist at Stanford University and author of "The Upside of Stress," helps people rethink stress by telling them that this is how we feel when something important to us is at stake. She asks him to make two lists: of things that bother him; and things that are important to them. "People realize that if they eliminated all the stress, their lives wouldn't make much sense," she says. "We have to let go of the fantasy that you can have whatever you want without stress."

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By changing the way their bodies handle stress and how they behave, such transformation can help people lead healthier lives. In 2012, scientists in the United States reviewed the 1998 National Health Interview Survey, which included questions about how much stress the 30,000 participants had experienced in the past year and whether they believed stress was bad for their health. Then they pored over the mortality records to find out which respondents had died. They found that those who reported high levels of stress and believed it was bad for their health had a 43% increased risk of premature death. Those who reported high levels of stress but did not think it harmed them were less likely to die early than those who reported low levels of stress.

The study shows correlation, not causation. But since a great deal of stress is inevitable, figuring out how to use it may be smarter than failed attempts to remove it.

This article appeared in the international part of the print edition under the headline "What makes us stronger"

InternationalJuly 23, 2016

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What makes us stronger (1)

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